Geithner Not the Only Treasury Secretary to Face Calamity

Newer bills cary security threads, color-shifting ink and watermarks. None of that insures the money will grow, however. For that, you need lots of lending and even more faith.

Poor Timothy Geithner.

Stepping in as President Obama's new Secretary of the Treasury this past January was a bit like taking over as captain of the sinking Titanic.

"There has never been a secretary of the Treasury, except maybe Alexander Hamilton right after the Revolutionary War, who's had to deal with the multiplicity of issues that Secretary Geithner is having to deal with — all at the same time," Obama told reporters on March 18, in the midst of the controversy over employee bonuses being paid out by insurance giant AIG.

Geithner certainly doesn't have it easy. Inheriting an economy in shambles, the current secretary has faced headache after headache over the allocation of $350 billion of bailout money, bank restructuring and now, the legitimacy of those fat bonuses being offered to AIG executives, many of whom had a hand in the economic collapse in the first place, experts say.

As tough as his short tenure has been, however, Geithner is in good company with these other dogged former Treasury Secretaries – including Hamilton – none of whom got much sleep in their day either:

Alexander Hamilton As the new nation's first official Secretary of the Treasury, appointed by George Washington in 1789, Alexander Hamilton would have had a tough job ahead of him no matter what. His task was to build a national treasury system from the ground up, on the heels of a war at that, and he was largely successful. Hamilton founded the U.S. Mint, worked out a tax system to help pay back debts incurred from the war, and established the First Bank of the United States. Unfortunately, Hamilton wasn't able to manage his personal finances in the same way; he was nearly broke when he was killed in 1804 during his famous duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr.

Hugh McCulloch The year 1865 wasn't ideal to become President Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury, with the newly peaceful nation mired in debt and the greenback suffering from intense inflation. To combat the crisis, McCulloch recommended reducing the flood of currency on the market and going back to the gold standard, a move that was adopted in 1866 though highly unpopular. The gold standard would be repealed two years later and remain a point of contention for decades, but McCulloch did such a good job overall that he was hired as secretary for a second time in 1884 under Chester Arthur.

Andrew W. Mellon As treasury secretary for 11 years from 1921 through 1932, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Mellon saw America go from the best of times to the worst of times. Mellon's spending cuts and tax-breaks for big businesses were popular at first, but dogged the secretary when the Roaring Twenties gave way to the Great Depression, which worsened in part because of his policies, some experts think. The criticism became so harsh that Mellon spent the last year of his term in Great Britain, negotiating war debts, while President Hoover relied on Under-Secretary Ogden Mills for advice.

Henry Morgenthau Jr. This financial warhorse and architect of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank served under FDR almost as long as the president himself, from 1934 to 1945. During that time he tackled the Great Depression, often engaging Roosevelt in debates over the New Deal policies, and created a system of war bonds that financed America's participation in World War II.

Heather Whipps is a freelance writer with an anthropology degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Her History Today column appears regularly on LiveScience.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.